What: New York Knicks (10-24) at Phoenix Suns (13-21)
When: 7:00 p.m. MST
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix
Watch: Fox Sports Arizona
Listen: 98.7 FM
This is it. The moment Suns fans (and the team itself) have been looking forward to all year. After a murderer’s row of Western Conference opponents over the first 30-plus games of the year as well as two long road trips, January is when things clear up.
The Suns don’t play a team with a winning record until Jan. 18 in Boston. They only play four winning teams total, two of which are the Spurs and Thunder, fellow playoff challengers who could well be below .500 by the time they face the Suns.
With eight of 15 January contests at home, this is the stretch that will define the Suns’ season.
Still, with injuries, poor team defense, and so many lost leads, coach Monty Williams said the team can’t afford to get ahead of itself.
“We’re just worried about tonight,” Williams said at shootaround on Friday. “You can get caught up in what you want to do while you’re at home, (but) I think what we did last trip was take it game by game.”
Tied for No. 9 in Western Conference
110.2 ORtg (14th) - 111.9 DRtg (23rd) = minus-1.8 netRtg (19th)
Projected starters: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, Aron Baynes
This game should present an opportunity against an inferior opponent to get back to basics on defense. New York plays a lot of isolation basketball, meaning the Suns will not have to adjust their rotation as dramatically as they did against Portland or the Lakers. Guys like Dario Saric and Devin Booker should have an easier time defensively.
Of course, finding chemistry and building good team defensive habits only happens if the whole team is available. Ricky Rubio is still on the injury report following a nasty spill at STAPLES Center, but he is probable. Rubio was a full participant in shootaround on Friday morning.
Asked if he expected to play, Rubio said simply, “I hope so. We’ll see how it progresses.”
While Williams expressed deep frustration with the spot where Rubio fell not being cleaned after Anthony Davis hit the floor there moments earlier, Rubio didn’t dwell on it.
“It does (frustrate me), but we can’t do nothing about it,” Rubio said.
All year, the Suns have been demonstrably better with Rubio on the floor. His ability to orchestrate the offense in transition, find shooters, and navigate pick-and-rolls in late-clock situations are huge drivers of the Suns’ strong offense. If the Suns have Rubio, they should have no problem against New York.
New York Knicks
No. 14 in the Eastern Conference
104.8 ORtg (27th) - 111.5 DRtg (19th) = minus-6.6 netRtg (27th)
Projected starters: Elfrid Payton, R.J. Barrett, Marcus Morris Sr., Julius Randle, Taj Gibson
Winners of three straight, the Knicks have found some mojo turning defense into offense. You won’t find many cellar-dwellers who play top-20 defense in the NBA, but by putting so many veterans on the floor and drafting defense-first prospects like Mitchell Robinson and Frank Ntilikina over the years, the Knicks do guard at a decent level.
They forced Portland into 39.4 percent shooting from the field on Wednesday night and blew them out by 24.
Switching up the rotation. The starting unit hasn’t been very good, but with Robinson in Gibson’s place, they are nearly even on the season, far better than any Knicks lineup with Barrett, Randle, and a traditional center.
Williams said the Knicks’ physicality is what stands out most. He called New York the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA (their offensive rebound rate is ninth-best, but Randle and Robinson are beasts on the glass individually).
“How they dismantled Portland the other day was eye-opening for me,” Williams said. “They’ve played really well the last 12 games ... that’s enough right there. Our guys need to understand who they are.”
This is a clash of two young teams, one with a surprisingly adequate defense against another with a surprisingly strong offense. Who plays better on the side of the floor they are worse on will decide the game.
Maybe this sounds like the goal of every basketball game ever played, but the Suns and Knicks in particular have been so one-sided this year that it is especially true Friday in Phoenix.
That said, I trust the Suns’ defense more than the Knicks’ offense. Phoenix has played strong defense at times this year — though it’s been a while since they’ve done so consistently — while the Knicks’ offense has been bad all season long.
Suns 120, Knicks 100